The islands’ names unfurl like a string of pearls: Ihuru, Villivaru, Mirihi, Dhiffushi, Kuramathi, Mahaana elhi Huraa. Like those coveted gems, the coral-encircled islands of Maldives have been treasured since ancient times both for their beauty and for their precious borders: the deep blue waters of the Indian Ocean.
In the bygone era, these islands were prized for their strategic position along tremendously important trade routes and as the source of cowrie shells, a form of currency once used in Asia and parts of East Africa. Ships plied the waters between the islands, Arabia, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Java and Sumatra. Nowadays, Maldives is even more renowned for the treasures that lie under those very seas — including the haunting, coral-covered shipwrecks that serve as poignant reminders of piratical days.
Most likely first settled by fisherman who drifted on the winds from the coasts of India and Sri Lanka millennia ago, chiefs or headmen first governed individual islands in the Maldives. Later, the fiat of Malé-based kings and queens— the Radun andRanin — encompassed the expanding island nation. What a challenge it must have posed in those ancient times to unite a country formed of what is currently more than 1,190 far-flung coral islets, only 200 of which are now inhabited. Together, Maldives’ scattered atolls span an impressive area of 35,20 square miles (90,000 square km), though some peek only head-high above sea level and none rise taller than a conventional one-story building.
Influenced culturally by both its near neighbors, Sri Lanka and India, and the Islamic seafarers who traded on the islands, Maldives also represents a more global sensibility due to waves of colonial rule in the region, which brought Portuguese, Dutch, French and British culture to its shores. In the 19th century, the islands became a British Protectorate, a relationship that ended when Maldives peaceably gained its independence from Britain on July 26, 1965.
Since that time, Maldives, formally a republic, experienced decades of authoritarian rule but is now a full-fledged democracy with an elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, who came to office in November, 2008. President Nasheed succeeds Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, at the time the longest-ruling head of government in Asia.